Panera Bread Co. “Copies” a Church

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The August 2, 2010, issue of TIME carried an unusual story about how Panera Bread Co. has taken a leaf out of the “playbook” of the congregation where I serve as pastor.

Well, the article wasn’t about Panera. It was about the Saint Louis Bread Co.—which around St. Louis is the name Panera uses.

And the article didn’t actually say they’d borrowed their idea from Markham Woods Church. But we did implement it more than a decade before they did. And another group of Christians tried it successfully nearly two thousand years before that (see Acts 2:44-47). Anyway, here’s the story.

Granted the downturn in the economy, Panera’s management wanted to do something to help clients who are struggling financially. So at Clayton, Missouri, they created a nonprofit Saint Louis Bread Co. outlet.

Crazy though it sounds, they put up signs in their restaurant that read: “We encourage those with the means to leave the requested amount or more if you’re able. And we encourage those with real need to take a discount.” In other words, at the restaurant you pay whatever your pocketbook and conscience dictate. It’s an honor system.

So how has it been going?

Since the experiment began in May, the nonprofit outlet’s receipts have averaged about 90 percent of their posted prices, according to the Time article. Some patrons are paying less than the posted price. And some are paying more—as an act of charity. Because patronage has actually increased, overall revenues have remained constant.

“It’s a hand up, not a handout,” says Ron Shaich, Panera’s executive chairman of the company’s board and the developer of the concept. Panera’s management understands that there’s no “free lunch.” Someone has to pay. “If enough people don’t feel responsible, we’re going to close,” says Shaich. But Panera officials are “confident responsibility will reign.”

At Markham Woods Church we have what we call our “free for all” philosophy. Of course, it’s a gross misnomer. As Panera fully understands, nothing is ever free. Someone always has to pay. But we want to make sure no one is left out of our church’s social/recreational/spiritual activities because they absolutely can’t afford them. So we don’t charge anyone. We feel our approach ties us together as a spiritual community in which we in some measure “bear one another’s burdens” as we’re invited to do by scripture.

The Panera experiment is viable only so long as people don’t lose sight of how it really works. Similarly, our radical approach at Markham Woods Church will likewise become non-viable if too many in our church family succumb to the misconception that Pathfinders, Adventurers, Eager Beavers, general church socials, our Valentines Banquet, Grades 6-8 socials, Grades 9-12 socials, Young Adult socials, our Church Retreat, Vacation Bible School, Youth Outfitters Unlimited (a week-long summer day camp for middle-schoolers), usage of the church for member weddings and a long list of other activities for which we once charged are now free.

No, they aren’t free. They cost. In fact, combined, all these activities and services cost upwards of $80,000 annually! It’s just that we don’t charge for them. Nor is there any checking to see who does and doesn’t contribute to the Church Budget. There’s no quid pro quo.

I’ll admit that when we started incrementally implementing this approach about fifteen years ago, we had our qualms. Would we bomb financially? Would Church Budget giving increase enough to cover the lost revenue? It did. Always. Every year as we added two or three new activities to the no-charge list, Church Budget giving continued to grow. We advertise that Markham Woods Church is “a good family to belong to.” I believe that both those who are paying extra and those who are subsidized would respond to that slogan with a hearty “Amen.” Both categories of members feel the joy that comes from a sense of truly belonging.

As long as “responsibility reigns”—as it did in the early church—Saint Louis Bread Co. will continue to be able to offer a radical marketing alternative. And as long as the Church Budget is appropriately supported, Markham Woods Church will continue its radical approach—which saves a lot of money collecting, allows tax-deductibility where it otherwise wouldn’t exist and ensures that the truly needy can participate fully in all our social/recreational/spiritual activities, never having to absent themselves for lack of funds.
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James Coffin is senior pastor of the Markham Woods Church in Longwood, Florida.

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